Anglosphere: The European Roach Motel

By JAMES C. BENNETT  |  Sept. 22, 2002 at 4:09 AM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 22 (UPI) -- Non-Americans may not be familiar with a long-running series of advertisements for a pest-control device known as a Roach Motel. The ads centered around a slogan to the effect of: "They check in, but they can't check out."

Now the Convention on the Future of Europe, the European Union's would-be Ben Franklins and John Adamses currently trying to draft a constitution for that organization, are considering a proposal that would make the European Union into a continent-wide roach motel.

Andrew Duff, a delegate belonging to the rabidly Eurofederalist British Liberal Democratic Party, has proposed that nations belonging to the Union not be allowed to withdraw from the treaties of membership without the assent of every other member-state.

This proposal cuts to the heart of a critical question regarding the European Union: is it an international organization for facilitating trade and cooperation among its members, or is it a continent-wide superstate in the making? During the debates over Britain's entry into the Union predecessor, the Common Market, pro-membership advocates swore it would only ever be the former. Now British Eurofederalists like Duff admit approvingly that it will become the latter.

By proposing an explicit measure to forbid withdrawal, Duff forces the issue. Should this proposal, or another to the same effect, be incorporated into the constitution draft, ratification of the document would become the last fully sovereign act any member-nation could take. If such proposals are rejected, it would unequivocally reconfirm the current understanding that member-states continue to have the right of unilateral withdrawal.

Duff analogized the tightening of the European Union to the creation of the United States. "We don't want to end up like the United States when the South wanted to leave and the North had to fight to keep them in," he was quoted as saying. He is right in that clarity now is more likely to avoid conflict later. However, it is more likely to avoid conflict by leading to a rejection of the draft constitution by Britain should such a clause be adopted.

Further examination reveals not only how problematic the proposal is, but beyond that, how problematic the issue of a European federal superstate could be. Consider the following scenario: Let us assume that the constitution were to contain such a clause, and assume further that it is assented to by the British government. Within a few years following such an event, probably between 2010 and 2015, the growing pressure of continental European pension and social spending obligations, aggravated by the low birthrate and retirement of the Baby Boomer bulge, leads to a fiscal crisis in the Union. This reality of this looming crisis has been frequently demonstrated, most recently by economist Patrick Minford in his recently-published "Should Britain Join the Euro?" (www.iea.org.uk)

Faced with the choice of economically disastrous fiscal implosion or electorally disastrous radical cutbacks in expected retirement benefits (the most over-obligated countries having almost no private retirement plans), the European Union proposes to, in effect, raid the piggy bank of the substantial British private pension system, by proposing a "harmonized" pan-European pension system, redistributing British private pension funds (and/or inflating the euro) to save Continental pensioners. Under a federal European constitution, this could be forced down the throat of Britain.

It is safe to assume that any British government will either confront the European Union at this point, or be replaced by one that would. But confrontation in a majority-voting environment is useless. The only effective threat is to secede. Given that a substantial number of British voters already would like to quit the Union, and presuming they still feel the same way in 2015, it would be likely that a move to secession in such circumstances would be backed by the electorate. It is also likely that Britain would not gain the required unanimity of permissions from other European states.

So then what? A European Fort Sumter? But this analogy is unlikely. To begin with, if South Carolina had possessed nuclear missile submarines in 1861, it would probably never would have had to fight. Even using only conventional forces, Britain has more than enough capability, especially vis-à-vis the weak Continental militaries, to prevent any active use of force against it. Given the increasing fiscal pressures on the Continental states, it is not realistic to expect their forces to improve dramatically in the near future. In reality, the chances of a successful military intervention from Europe are far poorer today than in 1940, the last time such was attempted.

But even beyond that, such considerations are absurd. Britain could invoke Article Four of the NATO treaty and demand assistance from the United States. European integration is unlikely to go so far as to revoke Britain's distinct membership in NATO, or to relinquish its seat on the Security Council. In fact, any even indirect threat of force would threaten to destroy NATO, whose foundational assumption is the enforcement of peace and security in Europe. Beyond that, even the initial whisperings of intervention in Brussels would probably be known to the Echelon surveillance system, and bring a strong warning from the United States. The whole issue of military coercion is a non-starter.

What then? Economic sanctions? These are hardly likely, given that Britain has a trade deficit vis-à-vis the Continent. The closer the Continent's structural crisis approaches, the less likely they will be to afford the luxury of a disruption of trade with Britain. Any economic move against Britain is more likely to cause domestic economic pain, while Britain would then be free to lower its economic barriers to its other substantial trade partners, particularly the United States, which would likely more than make up for any loss of business with the Continent.

The only really problematic issue would arise in the event that Britain had joined the European Monetary Union prior to a secession crisis. In that event, Britain would have been forced to make a substantial contribution to the European Central Bank, which would then be hostage to the Union. However, even here, a Europe in fiscal structural crisis might rapidly erode the value of the euro-denominated deposit in any event. The price of forfeiting the deposit (an issue that would probably be tied up in international courts for decades) would in the long run be cheaper than the costs of staying in the Union.

Fundamentally, it is unlikely that the European Union could keep Britain or any other significant member-state against the will of a substantial majority of its people. Europe as such is still more of a geographical expression than a basis for a national state, and is likely to be so for a long time to come. Therefore, such a roach-motel clause does more harm than good to any realistic goal for a European cooperative organization. The threat of withdrawal remains a strong bulwark against the temptation to solve the problems of European member-states on the backs of their neighbors.

The Anglosphere vision is of a loose set of cooperative institutions among the English-speaking, Common-Law based nations. This vision is compatible with the idea of complementary cooperative ties between the various Anglosphere nations and their regional neighbors. For America, this would include Latin America; for Australia, it would include Asia and the Pacific. For Britain and Ireland, a set of useful cooperative ties loosely affiliated with Europe makes perfect sense. Imposing the roach-motel clause on the European Union guarantees that, rather than being the basis for such ties, will in the long run be something Britain must stay out of.

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